clock menu more-arrow no yes

A DIY Renovation Becomes a Family Project

A dilapidated 1927 house regains its serene period spirit, thanks to a meticulous do-it-yourself remodel

Showcase Living Room

Photo by Brianne Williams

The seven ages of man, as Shakespeare saw it anyway, don’t include one as “a parent and steward of a house in need of a new layout.” And yet who has not noticed that the time to raise children often coincides with the time to raze walls? Consider what Erik and Michelle Dagenhart went through when, as busy young parents of then 6-year-old twins, they took on a house wracked by hard knocks and neglect—and turned it into a showplace by doing much of the work themselves.

Erik credits his dad, himself the son of a carpenter, with imprinting the drive to DIY. “He always said, ‘Why pay someone to do something you can do yourself?’ ”

Michelle, similarly hardwired, was already teaching herself remodeling skills in her 20s. Eschewing a conventional courtship, the two daydreamed about homeownership and ultimately worked together on Michelle’s starter house.

Shown: Payoffs include an inviting living room, anchored by a working fireplace with its original mantel and a new marble surround.

DIY Family

Photo by Brianne Williams

Leap forward—over marriage, kids, and another house—to their latest joint project, a major fixer-upper on a leafy street in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We were living nearby in a beautiful old house, but the space was a little inefficient,” says Michelle, recalling the tidy mind-set that drew her to what was then a Miss Havisham–style ruin. “I had noticed it while out on walks with the kids. It was all overgrown, trees and bushes covered it, and I tried to knock on the door, but the owner never appeared. I wrote to her but never heard back. It had been in and out of foreclosure, so I contacted her lawyer, and he described the situation: She was a widow, a recluse, also a hoarder, who did not leave the house. Would I like to come see it next week?”

Shown: Michelle and Erik Dagenhart, with twins Livi and Sam, did most of the work that went into the gut reno of their 1927 house. During eight long months, the entire family lived in a 400-square-foot apartment over the garage.

Their Fantasy Kitchen

Photo by Brianne Williams

She and Erik hustled over to find garbage piled high, indoor cats without litter boxes, nicotine-stained walls, and floors punctured by tree limbs and vines. The last improvements had been done 17 years earlier, in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, which incidentally dropped a giant oak on the roof.

Of course, the game couple said, “We’ll take it.”

Shown: After adding on in back, Erik and Michelle were able to build their fantasy kitchen, complete with marble countertops, custom cabinets, and a pro-style cooktop with a raised griddle. Erik pieced together the oak herringbone floor with help from his dad, Terry, who hand-cut each piece.

Kitchen design: South End Kitchens

Cabinets: Cabico

Cooktop: Viking

Pendant fixture: Visual Comfort & Co.

Faucet: Belle Foret

Knobs and pulls: Emtek

Countertops: Walker Zanger

In the Pink Room

Photo by Brianne Williams

“The worse a house looked the more I wanted it,” Michelle says. “I could do my own renovation without butchering it, with as much restoring and keeping of the architectural integrity as possible.”

Along with incorporating modern amenities, the couple were bent on being green. “We have always been environmentally conscious, and it was important to us to make our home energy-efficient and keep our carbon footprint and construction waste as minimal as possible,” Michelle says. “Renovating an old home instead of tearing it down is the ultimate in recycling,” she adds—especially when it would be cheaper to build from scratch.

Shown: Livi’s room has an accent wall stenciled early on by her handy mom, who says she is counting on her daughter—now 17 and no longer a big fan of pink—to catch the DIY bug.

Landing Accents

Photo by Brianne Williams

Originally about 2,400 square feet, with three bedrooms and two baths, the 1927 house sat on a corner lot with room to grow. The couple brought in architect R. Andrew Woodruff and drew up plans for an 1,870-square-foot rear addition, enlarging the kitchen and adding a butler’s pantry, mudroom, den, and screened porch. Below it would be basement living space, and above it bedrooms for the kids with a Jack-and-Jill shared bath.

Shown: The homeowners framed the view from the second-floor stair landing with charcoal paint. Erik built the bookcases; Michelle sewed the curtains and reupholstered the sofa, a hand-me-down from her great-grandmother.

Chandelier: Dilworth Antique Lighting

Paint: Eastway Paint and Decorating

Master Bedroom

Photo by Brianne Williams

To create a more pleasing facade, Woodruff shifted the front door and added a carefully proportioned wraparound porch. “You want modern living in an old house, but you also want it to feel historical,” he says of efforts to match new windows, casings, corner boards, and overhangs to the original house. “They wanted more space, but they didn’t want it to feel like a looming mansion, so we did things to bring down the scale, adding distinctive elements like the bay window.”

Shown: After demolishing the master bedroom’s damaged ceiling, Erik and Michelle realized they could vault the new one and capture a window previously trapped in the attic. The couple repurposed the rafters, and rewired and installed vintage light fixtures.

Sunlight-Filled Bath

Photo by Brianne Williams

To handle construction, the couple chose green-oriented Banister Homes. “They replaced the roof and siding and all but one window, insulated with spray foam, sealed the crawl space, and bought a tankless water heater and Energy Star appliances,” says Kathy Spence, the firm’s LEED expert. “The ductwork is so well sealed, the house passed a ‘blower-door’ test. People think to buy an efficient HVAC system, but you want a solid envelope, and the house to function efficiently as a whole.”

Shown: The new master suite includes a marble-lined bath with a cast-iron pedestal tub and plenty of sunlight.

Tile: The Tile Shop

Tub: Sunrise Specialty

Tub fittings: Strom Plumbing

Chandelier: Dilworth Antique Lighting

Soaking in the Sun

Photo by Brianne Williams

Before hitting the house, the team homed in on the garage, jacking it up to pour a new foundation and redoing its 400-square-foot upstairs apartment—home for the family of four during eight of the nine months it took to make the house livable.

The intrepid homeowners had already hauled more than two dumpsters’ worth of trash out of the house and done most of the demolition. They kept at it, installing miles of trim and wiring and acres of tile and hardwood, including a herringbone floor in the kitchen with boards hand-cut by Erik’s dad.

Shown: The master bath has a sunny spot for post-DIY soaks.

Windows: Marvin

Tub: Sunrise Specialty

Tub fittings: Strom Plumbing

Console Sink

Photo by Brianne Williams

With one eye on their budget and another on the environment, the couple scrimped and salvaged. Framing was reused; trees that had to come down were milled for baseboard trim and closet paneling; rafters torn out of the master bedroom ceiling became a counter in the butler’s pantry. Michelle gleaned light fixtures and a mantel at secondhand stores; Craigslist coughed up a sideboard.

Shown: New-old fixtures like a console sink with shapely legs give the guest bath a period look.

Sink and faucet: Randolph Morris

Medicine cabinet: Pottery Barn

Marble on Marble

Photo by Brianne Williams

“They did all the finishes themselves,” says Spence. “It’s a credit to them that we handed that off—with most clients we would be reluctant.”

The couple turned to a kitchen designer for help with that room, while Erik crafted cabinets and built-ins elsewhere, and Michelle stenciled walls and whipped up curtains, pillows, even duvets.

Shown: The guest-bath shower is wrapped by three types of marble.

Tile: The Tile Shop

Shower fittings: Kohler

Cleaning Zone Alcove

Photo by Brianne Williams

Outside, they built fencing, laid a flagstone front walk and back patio, and put in an irrigation system that—naturally—captures and redeploys rainwater.

Six years after moving into an ongoing reno, the couple volunteered their showplace for a house-and-garden tour. No one was surprised to learn that it was beautifully done, or that it had racked up local and state awards for green building.

Another no-surprise: Erik is now a licensed GC. “I’ve hired him to do my own house,” Woodruff says with a laugh—“two baths and a kitchen.”

Shown: An alcove in the new kitchen encloses the cleanup zone. Flat-panel cabinets, some with furniture feet, nod to the 1920s, when the house was built.

Storage-Lined Mudroom

Photo by Brianne Williams

As the couple start to approach the stage known as empty nesting, they contemplate tackling a smaller fixer-upper. But for the moment, they plan to stay put. “I love coming home to the house,” says Michelle. “It has worked so well for our family—everybody has their own space, and it’s decorated the way I’d always dreamed.” Salvaging an old wreck may sound like work, but for these DIY multi- taskers, “it’s been so much fun.”

Shown: The rear addition includes a storage-lined mudroom with an embossed-metal ceiling and a lantern-style light fixture.

Light fixture: Dilworth Antique Lighting

Ceiling: Tin Ceiling Depot

First Floor Plans

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

A three-story, 1,870-square-foot rear addition was grafted onto the 2,396-square-foot house, for a total of four bedrooms and three and a half baths; the front porch, and a sleeping porch and rear screened porch are also new.

Second Floor Plans

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

The addition holds two bedrooms, two baths, and a loft, above a mudroom, den, and finished basement (not shown). The existing layout was altered to create the master suite, a new kitchen, and a butler’s pantry, and the opening between the foyer and living room was widened and finished with columns.